Foundry United Methodist Church

Rev. Dean Snyder, Senior Minister

 

 

Sermon Series: Christianity Without Easy Answers

 “What Makes Somebody a Christian?”

Sunday, February 8, 2009

 

 

Acts 11: 19-26

Dean

Rev. Dean Snyder


What makes somebody a Christian? How do I know if I am one? What must I do to become one? These are the kinds of questions we want to talk about this morning.

 

Let’s look at some of the answers that we might have heard somewhere in our past or assumed.

 

What makes somebody a Christian? One answer might be that a Christian is somebody who believes certain things, like the Apostles’ Creed or the idea that Jesus is the messiah, or that the universe was created in six days, or that every word of the Bible is true. This answer – that a Christian is someone who believes certain things – has created a lot of conflict throughout the centuries because if we assume that believing certain ideas is what makes somebody a Christian, then we’ve got to figure out which ideas. What ideas or doctrines are the minimal requirements to be a Christian?

 

Lots of people think they can’t be a Christian because they can’t bring themselves to believe certain ideas like the Virgin Birth or the literal physical resurrection.

 

The problem with this answer is that Christianity is not primarily an ideology. Christianity is not primarily a collection of ideas. It is not primarily a set of doctrines. There may be Christian ideologies within Christianity, but Christianity itself is not an ideology. So believing certain ideas is not what makes somebody a Christian.

 

Another answer might be that a Christians is someone who has had a certain experience: someone who has been “born again” or converted or baptized or confirmed. There are some Pentecostal groups who believe that a Christian is someone who has spoken in tongues.

 

This answer has also been the cause of a lot of conflict within Christianity over the centuries because, if we define Christians in terms of experience, we have to figure out which experiences are definitive. I know an Anglican priest from the Caribbean who teaches at a seminary where most of the students are born again Baptists. The Anglican professor will sometimes talk to his classes about when his parents took him to the neighborhood priest when he was two weeks old, and he will say, “Then the priest made me a Christian.” The priest made him a Christian by baptizing him, he tells the students. Most of the born again Baptist students are aghast and offended at the very thought, which is why the professor says it.

 

We Americans are particularly enamored by the idea of being born again. When I was planning this sermon series months ago, I bought a copy of Billy Graham’s book, written in originally in 1977, entitled How to be Born Again. I figured Dr. Graham would be the expert on the born again experience. One of the fascinating things about Dr. Graham’s book is that it pulls the statement “You must be born again,” out of its context in John chapter three and never explores the complex and fascinating conversation that led Jesus to make this statement.[i] Jesus is talking about what needs to happen to us in order to be able to perceive and participate in God’s presence in the world, and frankly, in this passage, he sounds more like the Buddha than a revivalist so it is ironic that this story has become the basis for so much of America’s revivalist Christianity.

 

Baptism and confirmation are precious. We put a lot of energy into baptism and confirmation here at Foundry. But they are experiences that seek to communicate and dramatize and make real to us realities we believe to be already true before we do them. Baptism doesn’t cause God to love and receive a baby or child or adult. It is a way of us trying to grasp the grace that already is.

 

Christianity is an experiential religion. The experiences are sometimes inward, like the kind of experience that Jesus called being born again. The experiences are sometimes outward, such as rituals like baptism or confirmation. But it is not any particular experience that makes someone a Christian.

 

What does make somebody a Christian? A third answer might be that a Christian is somebody who does certain things or lives a certain way. This answer assumes Christianity is primarily an ethic and those who live out this ethic can be defined as Christians. This is perhaps the most appealing definition to many of us at a mission-oriented social justice congregation like Foundry, and there are some strong biblical supports for this understanding of what it means to be a Christian. There is, for example, the parable of the judgment of the nations in Matthew 25 which says whatever we do or don’t do for the most vulnerable – the least of these – we do or don’t do for Jesus Christ and that this is the basis by which all nations will be judged.

 

But Matthew 25 is talking about something larger than Christianity. Matthew 25 is about all nations, all religions. It says that Christians will be judged by this standard but so will everybody else. Compassion is a universal rule of life.

 

The biggest problem with defining the word Christian based on doing or not doing certain things is that the Apostle Paul and the weight of theological thinking all throughout the history of Christianity says that Christianity is not a religion of laws. Christianity is not a faith that says that we are saved by good works. While Christianity’s purpose is to help us live good lives, Christianity is not primarily an ethical code.   

 

There are other definitions of what a Christian is. It is interesting to travel to other parts of the world and hear other definitions of what makes somebody a Christian. I was in Africa once talking to some African Christians. They were telling me about a Muslim man, now deceased, who had been well known in their nation. They were trying to tell me that, although he was a Muslim, he was a person they, as Christians, felt comfortable with. This is what one person, a professor at a Methodist college, said about him: “He’d sit at a table with you and drink whiskey just like a Christian.” This is an interesting definition of what it means to be a Christian, but not an isolated one. A Christian who lived in a country that is almost entirely Muslim once defined a Christian to me as a person who drinks wine. 

 

So what does make somebody a Christian?

 

The Book of Acts actually tells us when and where the term Christian was first used. It happened in the city of Antioch. After the stoning of Stephen, a persecution against the church in Jerusalem began. Saul, later to become the Apostle Paul, led a roundup of church members. Acts says “Paul ravaged the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.” (Acts 8: 3)

 

Members of the church fled from Jerusalem to avoid arrest. One of the places they fled to was Antioch in Syria north of Palestine. Today Antioch is the modern-day city of Antakya, Turkey. Some of the Jewish followers of Jesus who fled to Antioch began sharing their faith with Gentiles – non-Jews. A large number of Gentiles became followers of Jesus. Acts says “The hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number became believers and turned to the Lord.” (Acts 11: 21)

 

The church back in Jerusalem sent Barnabas, one of their leaders, to assess the situation. Barnabas was excited by what he saw. He invited Saul, who had now become a follower of Jesus and was now called Paul, to come to Antioch. Paul after all had started the whole thing in a way through his persecution. Barnabas and Paul ministered for a year to this church in Antioch, a church for the first time composed of both Jews and Gentiles.

 

Acts says “It was at Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians.” (Acts 11: 26)

 

When the church was made up of people of just one ethnic and religious identity it was not yet called Christian. It was commonly referred to simply as the Way and the members of the movement were called those who belong to the Way. (Acts 9:2)

 

But when ethnic and religious Gentiles became followers of Jesus, the Way became more confusing. Before Antioch all followers of Jesus were Jews who continued to follow Jewish practices. The Jewish followers of Jesus continued to eat kosher food, to worship in the synagogue, to tithe to the synagogue, to follow Jewish ethical codes and customs. Following Jesus was the way they were Jewish.

 

But now, with the addition of Gentile followers of Jesus, there were other ways to follow Jesus. Christian practices began to become more diverse. This new community was no longer linked by religious background, ethnicity, shared nationality, or shared customs. Now the only thing that they held in common was Jesus Christ. So they became known as Christians. The one thing they had in common was Christ.

 

Definitively, to be a Christian has no other meaning or implications or baggage than Jesus Christ. You first have Christians when the church becomes diverse and the only thing that holds people together is Christ. So in a negative sense Christians are people who, whatever else they have in common, are drawn together only by Jesus Christ. Nothing else about us makes any of us a Christian except for Jesus Christ.

 

Based on this Acts account, I want to propose this definition of a Christian. A Christian is someone who is drawn to the story of Jesus Christ and turns toward it. The word Christian began to be used when a diversity of people heard the story of Jesus Christ and “a great number became believers and turned to the Lord.” (Acts 11: 21) 

 

Christians are people who hear the story of Jesus Christ and are drawn to it and who respond by turning toward this story.

 

Let me add this: The story of Jesus Christ does not begin with Jesus’ birth nor does it end with Jesus’ death. John says: “In the beginning was the Word…” and “the word became flesh and lived among us.” (John 1: 1, 14) The story of Jesus Christ begins back before creation and it continues up to this very day and to the end of history. So to be drawn by the story of Jesus Christ does not just mean the story we read in the four books of the Bible called Gospels, and it does not just mean the story told within the Bible, but also the whole history of Christianity, bad and good, up until this very day.

 

And the story of Jesus Christ is not just told in words. It is told in music with lyrics or without; it is told in the drama of rites and rituals; it is told in paintings, sculptures, and glass; it is told in architecture; it is told in archetypal images that appear in our dreams; it is told in the lives of ordinary and extraordinary saints whose lives have been influenced and shaped by this story. It appears between the lines in much of the world’s great fiction, poetry and literature.

 

Jane and I were visiting a United Methodist congregation one Sunday, and we heard the pastor tell an amazing story. He shared his testimony as to why he was a Christian and a United Methodist. He grew up in a home in the midst of great poverty. At one point in his childhood when things were very bad at home, a friend’s family invited him to come live with them and he did. They attended a Methodist church. He lived with them for a long time, and then another family in the church invited him to come live with them; later another family. He was literally raised by a Methodist congregation. After that, I would venture to say the verbal telling of the story of Jesus Christ was redundant. He had experienced the story of Jesus Christ before he heard it.

 

A Christian is someone who experiences in some way the story of Jesus Christ and who is drawn to this story, no matter how it is told, and who turns toward it.  The story of Jesus Christ draws us in many, many different ways.

 

In the Gospel of John, Jesus says to his disciples: “You did not choose me, but I have chosen you…” (John 15: 16)

 

Also in John, Jesus says, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” (John 12: 32) The story of Jesus Christ chooses us more than we choose it. It draws us into itself.

 

Sometimes it chooses us because it is the story we grew up hearing and seeing acted out throughout our childhood and youth. Sometimes it chooses us because we grew up without a compelling story and it finds us at some point in our life and draws us into itself. Sometimes we fight the story; we resist it; we rebel against it; but it is still our story and we can’t escape from it.

 

Sometimes we have grown up with another story but we find this story compelling instead. People who have grown up in other religions sometimes tell me that they heard the story of Jesus and they knew almost instantly that this was their story. Sometimes they saw it lived out in the life of a missionary and it became their story. They will tell you that they did not choose the story of Jesus Christ; it chose them. And sometimes another story chooses some of us who have grown up as Christians as well.

 

The stories that we are drawn to and that we attend to are very powerful. They may be determinative. Jane and I have been ordering the first season of the TV show Mad Men on our Netflix account. We didn’t know about the show until it won all sorts of awards so we decided to get the first season that we missed from Netflix. Anyone ever watch Mad Men? It is about a Madison Avenue advertising agency in the 1960s.

 

One night we watched three episodes in a row. After three episodes of Mad Men in a row, Jane turned to me and said, “Let’s go to the corner store and buy a pack of cigarettes.” Just about every scene in three episodes showed people smoking. The stories we listen to are very powerful. Maybe determinative.

 

Stories are very powerful. Christians are people who are drawn by the story of Jesus Christ and turn toward it.

 

There are many ways to turn toward it. Some turn towards it by studying theology. I know someone who says he became a Christian after reading the theology of Paul Tillich. I doubt this is normative, however.

 

I know people who have intellectual difficulty with some of the ideas of Christianity but who are drawn by the story of Jesus Christ as it is told in the works of Handel and Bach and who turn toward the story of Christ in the music they love. I know a person who has grave intellectual doubts who listens to Gospel music every morning to begin his day. This is his way of turning toward a story even when he finds parts of it intellectually difficult.

 

I have heard the story of a person who is very active in his local church. He finds great meaning in participating in the life of the community. He will secretly tell you he is agnostic about “all the religious stuff,” but being part of his congregation is his way of turning toward the story of Jesus Christ.

 

Certainly there are many of us who are drawn to the story of Christ who don’t manage to live it out in our own lives very well. When Mahatma Gandhi was asked his opinion about Christianity he famously said: "I have a great respect for Christianity. I often read the Sermon on the Mount and have gained much from it. I know of no one who has done more for humanity than Jesus. In fact, there is nothing wrong with Christianity, but the trouble is with you Christians. You do not begin to live up to your own teachings."[ii]

 

Certainly many of us who are Christians do not manage to live out the story of Jesus Christ very well. Sometimes those who do not claim the name Christian have done a better job of living out the story of Christ than those of us who do claim the name. In the movie Gandhi there is a humorous scene:

 

Gandhi and Reverend Andrews, a Christian missionary, are walking together in South Africa.  The two suddenly find their way blocked by gang of tough looking young men.  Reverend Andrews takes one look at the gang and decides to run for it.  Gandhi stops him.  “Doesn’t the New Testament say if an enemy strikes you on the right cheek you should offer him the left?” Gandhi asks.  Andrews mumbles that he thinks Jesus used the phrase metaphorically.  “I’m not so sure,” Gandhi replies. “I suspect he meant you must show courage – be willing to take a blow, several blows, to show you will not strike back nor will you be turned aside.  And when you do that it calls on something in human nature, something that makes his hatred decrease and his respect increase.  I think Christ grasped that and I have seen it work.”[iii]

 

It is not our intellectual grasp, our spiritual experiences, nor our morality that make us Christians. It is our being drawn to the story of Christ and our turning toward it.

 

The more we turn toward the story and listen to it and experience it again and again in different ways – in Scripture, in the rituals of Christianity, in the arts and music, in doing mission – the more formative it is likely to be in our life. This is the purpose of the church – to be a people who seek to immerse ourselves in as many ways as we can think of in the story of Jesus Christ so that it will form our lives.

 

There has been a tension within Christianity almost from the very beginning as to who is in and who is out. Something about us wants clear and clean answers about who is in and who is out. But Christianity is not about clear answers. The Gospels themselves demonstrate this.

 

The Gospel of Matthew quotes Jesus as saying: “Whoever is not with me is against me.” (Matthew 12: 30) Mark quote Jesus as saying: “Whoever is not against us is for us.” (Mark 9: 40) Luke quotes Jesus as saying: “Whoever is not against you is for you.” (Luke 9: 50) Then two chapters later, Luke quotes Jesus as saying: “Whoever is not with me is against me.” (Luke 11: 23) For the life of me I can not figure out the difference in context, except that from the early days of the church, Christians have had a hard time figuring out who was out and who was in.

 

It is as though those who are overly confident that they are challenged in such a way as to be made insecure and those who are insecure are affirmed in such a way as to be reassured of their inclusion.

 

Our friend Mark Miller has taken a lyric written by Gordon Lightfoot and turned it into a hymn of the church. The first verse says: “Draw the circle wide.” The second verse says “Draw it wider still.” You sing the verses over and over again. Draw the circle wide. Draw it wider still. Draw the circle wide. Draw it wider still. Over and over.

 

This seems to me to capture the spirit of Christ. Finally, deciding who is in and who is out isn’t up to you and me, is it? Christ chooses whom he will. The story of Christ chooses whom it will. If they are not welcomed here, a new community will emerge that will include whom Christ chooses – this is the history of Methodism. If we do not welcome those whom Christ chooses we will just become less and less relevant. If we welcome those whom Christ chooses, we will be vital and alive.

 

What makes you and me Christian? Nothing we’ve done really. Something Christ has done. By grace, the story of Jesus Christ has drawn us into itself and made us Christians.

   

 

 

 

 

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[i] Billy Graham, How to be Born Again (Word Publishing, 1977), 143-153.

[ii] Quoted in “Christianity Is Loving like Jesus,” Manila Bulletin. May 6, 2007.

[iii] Quoted in Phillip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew (Zandervan Publishing House, 1995), 121.